At the end of a video made by Brigham Young University to endorse their Honor Code, the words “Choose Honor” are boldly projected against an all-white background. Any deviance from the code of conduct requires that a student will be subjected to an investigation and a decision ranging from no action to dismissal. However, it has recently come to light that Brigham Young University has repeatedly punished female students for something that has nothing to do with choice.
Last September, BYU student Madi Barney was raped in her apartment and after reporting it to the police, her case was sent to the Brigham Young University Honor Code Office without her consent. She is now being investigated for an Honor Code violation and cannot register for classes at the university pending the decision of the investigation (Here & Now, “Student Who Reported Rape Could Be Punished For Violating BYU Honor Code,” 4.22.2016). Disregarding the Provo Police Department’s blatant violation of Barney’s privacy as a victim; the Honor Code Office’s assumption that she lied; the deeply problematic scenario that had Barney reported the rape to the institution, Brigham Young University would have investigated her rape as an honor code violation; and even setting aside talk of whether or not colleges should be handling investigations of sexual assault at all, there is an even more systemic, internalized problem.
Many institutions, including Vassar College, do not have stifling institutional frameworks as overt as BYU’s honor code. Why, then, is reporting a rape or sexual assault possibly as difficult here as it is at institutions where victims can be explicitly punished for reporting? According to the Campus Climate Survey, 14.8 percent of cisgender women, 5.3 percent of cisgender men, and 18.8 percent of non-cisgender individuals have experienced a “penetrative incident” since matriculating at Vassar. Furthermore, 37.1 percent of cisgender women, 17.4 percent of cisgender men, and 45.8 percent of non-cisgender people have experienced a “non-penetrative incident” at Vassar. Yet, only 10.3 percent of cisgender women, 6.3 percent of cisgender men, and 25 percent (two of eight) non-cisgender individuals have filed an official report with the College, and no one surveyed has filed an official report with the police (Executive Summary of Data and Findings from the Vassar College Campus Climate Survey regarding Sexual Assault and Misconduct, Dating Violence, Stalking, and Vassar’s Title IX Processes, Conducted Spring, 2015, “Survey-Based Incidence Counts and Rates reported by students at Vassar,” 2015). Students clearly still lack confidence in the system.
This skepticism in administrators’ ability to help victims of sexual assault is not unwarranted. Title IX cases are notorious for their length and administrative costs, creating a bureaucratic atmosphere not conducive to providing solace and justice for survivors. According to the website knowyourix.org, filing a Title IX case with the Office of Civil Rights can take anywhere from one month to a year for processing alone. The adjudication process can take even longer.
Further complicating the process is the issue of whom is handling these cases. At Vassar, Title IX Coordinator Rachel Pereira started her position this past January. Prior to her time at Vassar Kelly Grab filled the position in an interim role, after former Title IX Coordinator Julian Williams left the position last June. Williams worked at Vassar as Title IX Coordinator for three years (The Miscellany News, “College appoints new Title IX Coordinator, 10.28.2015). Using Vassar as a case study shows how young administrators who handle these serious and sensitive situations on campuses often do not stay for very long. This does not provide enough time for trust to be built between the Title IX Coordinator and a student body, making the reporting process more unstable and inconsistent for survivors. Often, the only result of reporting sexual assault is a no-contact order, which does not sufficiently protect and support survivors.
Moreover, the cost of sexual assault mitigation runs high, ranging from $25,000 to $500,000 annually, with some costing upwards of $1 million (The New York Times, “Colleges Spending Millions to Deal With Sexual Misconduct Complaints,” 03.29.2016). After a Title IX complaint is filed, survivors are implicated in a drawn-out and bureaucratically complicated process which entails intense accumulation of personal information and the reliving of painful, triggering experiences. Various survivors–within the Vassar community and beyond–have spoken out against how colleges prioritize institutional image over properly sanctioning rapists and preventing sexual assault from occurring. On-campus initiatives such as the CARES hotline and SAVP are first steps to reckoning with the silencing of survivors, but not the entire solution.
While holding perpetrators of gendered violence responsible for their actions and sexual assault prevention should be at the forefront of this discussion, the high costs and lengthiness that Title IX cases entail contribute to barriers in accountability and healing. The environment encourages silence, leading to processes that favor the institution rather than the survivor.
Brigham Young University’s Honor Code is a readily apparent failure of institutional efficacy and sound public policy. The manner in which Title IX is arbitrated at such institutions masks the issue under layers of bureaucratic red tape and roundabout investigative procedures. Often institutions are ill-equipped and inexperienced at handling the investigative procedures concerning sexual assault. Most importantly, the process leaves survivors feeling like they are reliving their assault, encouraging silence and submission over healing and accountability.
Survivors of sexual assault over the last several years have broken their silence, reckoning with the pervasiveness of institutional dysfunction here at Vassar and in colleges and universities across the country. Such testimonials, largely via Boilerplate, are imperative to demolishing the frameworks of administrative negligence in place that silence survivors in their search for justice and solace and empowering survivors.
We at The Miscellany News acknowledge the systematic failures of Vassar and colleges across the country, with and without honor codes, to prevent sexual assault from occurring and to sanction and rehabilitate rapists. We stand in solidarity with survivors, at Vassar and elsewhere, in the battle for recognizing and preventing the dehumanization that often comes with gendered violence and institutional responses.
We echo, renew and qualify the calls the Editorial Board of The Miscellany News from February 11, 2015, which read, “Senior administrators should seek the counsel of students and faculty who spend their time thinking, researching and discussing these issues. At this time, we do not need panicked solutions for the purposes of merely reducing numbers and saving face. Vassar students deserve thoughtful work in the realm of transformative justice and communal accountability to create meaningful change.” (The Miscellany News, “College should do more for sexual assault survivors,” 02.11.2015). Revisions to Title IX cases must be ensured to be speedy and centered around the lived experiences of survivors, rather than the conveniences of institutions.
—The Staff Editorial expresses the opinion of at least two-thirds of the Miscellany News Editorial Board